A Quick Primer on Disablism

In light of the #StopAbleism2015 hashtag on Twitter, I thought I’d write up a quick bit about disablism (Also known as ableism) because, unbeknownst to myself, I turned out to actually have complicated thoughts on the matter. I’d written about Sex and Disablism here before, and a bit about Disablism Towards People with Mental Illnesses but I have Even More Thoughts, apparently. So, here we go.

Ableism? Disablism?

The American and British English terms for, broadly speaking, treating people differently depending on whether they have a disability, or not. I use both, with no apparent pattern to which I use. They both mean the same thing, anyway.

So, why’ve I heard so many different things described as disablist? They’re not all just treating people differently, are they?

Broadly speaking, yes.

Would you inquire after the bodily functions of an ablebodied person that you didn’t know? If not, then when you ask a disabled person how they wash their hair/go to the toilet/have sex, you’re being disablist.

If you’re a shop, do you require non-wheelchair users to wait to be allowed into the building by a member of staff? If not, when you do that, rather than having a ramp for wheelchair users, you’re being disabist.

Would you just assume without asking that a non-mentally ill person couldn’t do a certain job? If not, then when you assume that a mentally ill person couldn’t do it, you’re being disablist.

Would you expect that a non-disabled person woould always bring a helper with them to your event? If not, then when you assume that a disabled person will always be accompanied, you’re being disablist.

Hang on, that sounds like you could do it accidentally!

Yes, a lot of people are accidentally ableist – Taxi companies not running wheelchair cabs late at night because they assume that disabled people don’t go out clubbing, are perpetuating ableism. Wheelchair lifts which can’t be operated by the wheelchair user, and need a second person to operate the buttons, are perpetuating ableism. Shop assistants who expect to not have to talk to person with learning difficulties, but instead to only have to talk to their companion, are perpetuating ableism. None of this particularly requires the conscious thought of “Oh, you know what, I’ll be shitty to the disabled person.”

But “Ableism!” that sounds like… Racism, or sexism. And racists are bad people. And sexists are bad people. So are ableists bad people?

Well, no. And by extension, people who are racist and sexist also aren’t uniformly bad people. Some are, but some are just misguided, or misinformed, or socially inept. Society is set up in such a way that it’s difficult to spot disablism unless you’re a direct victim of it; Someone talking second-hand about how a disabled person was so inspirational for doing an everyday activity like shopping doesn’t seem actively hurtful – Until you think about what it’s like for that disabled person, who gets a combination of infantilising cooing and panicked repetitions of “Are you sure you can do that on your own?” whenever they go to the shops. And for abled people, constantly hearing stories about how inspirational it is for a disabled person to (for example) have friends, or go to university, or live alone, this reinforces the narrative that disabled people are usually lonely, or uneducater, or dependent on others for their care. It’s self-perpetuating.

So, wait, do disabled people not do this as well?

Yes, and no. Yes, disabled people can be disablist; Both to other disabled people and to themselves (Internalised disablism) but, in general, the bulk of the low-grade, ignorant, over-personal rambling is from the completely non-disabled. Very few mentally ill people will rave about a miracle cure for depression or schizophrenia that you just have to try, when you tell them that you have one of the above, but mention that you’re bipolar to someone who’s non-mentally ill and suddenly they’re the leading expert on how you can completely cure yourself with positive thinking and lemon oil. Similarly mentioning insomnia to a fellow insomniac will usually get a response of “You poor sod. Want to chat at four in the morning when we’re the only ones awake?” whereas mentioning it to a non-insomniac will often result in a half-hour lecture on how all you need is to calm down and get therapy because it worked for their cousin Wayne, and how you’re really not helping yourself.

Disabled people being actively disablist usually manifests itself as “Well, I can do that thing, why can’t you do that thing? My condition is the same as or worse than yours!”, as “That’s not [condition], I have [condition], you’re just a whinge” or as “Well, if you’re not doing [this therapy] then you’re not trying hard enough to manage [condition]” – Often with a not-too-subtle hint of “If you’re not hiding your condition, and looking non-disabled, you’re not trying hard enough”. That last one is actually pretty common from abled people as well. As is the second one, actually.

And finally – Internalised disablism usually manifests as something like this or this or this; feeling as if making accommodations for your disability are too much work for people to bother with, as if you’re less interesting or less worthy of companionship than non-disabled people, and sometimes as if you’re “not really ill enough” to warrant all the fuss. I’m drowning in it, by the way.

So if basically everyone does it, it’s a bit cruel to insinuate that abled people do it more.

Not really, since they do do it more. By definition, a disabled person is going to be aware of the issues facing disabled people – Not of all disabled people (Since the lot in life of two disabled people can be very different – A man with Downs’ Syndrome living in sheltered accommodation will have a very different life to a woman with cerebral palsy living with her partner, and both will have very different lives to a Deaf woman in student halls) but they’ll know the issues facing themselves, and they’ll usually extrapolate that to other people; I’m only a part-time wheelchair user, and I use a comparatively small manual chair, but from that vantage point I can see that the provision for full-time wheelchair users is terrible, and that you’d never be able to fit a full-sized electric into the disabled toilet in Geology in my old university. I’m not Blind, but I can imagine that a Blind person will get a similar kind of interference from onlookers when trying to cross a road as I do (The not-helpful “Here, let me take your arm and steer you out into traffic when it’s not quite safe for you!”) and I know that it’s not appreciated, so I don’t do it to Blind people.

In short – Not only are there more abled people, thus you’re more likely to get disablist abuse from one of them, but abled people are less likely to engage with disability rights and equal treatment, simply because they’re less likely to have encountered the idea. So they’re more likely to, completely accidentally, get things wrong.

Plus, a lot of media is casually disablist; Politicians are called “Psycho” or “Insane”, people in wheelchairs are used as casual shorthand for tragedy and dreams-cruelly-stolen narratives, “And he went mad” is used to mean “And then (the villain) became both more dangerous and more compelling”, and “brain damaged” or “eating the crayons” is used to malign anyone that the writer disagrees with. So people do accidentally come out with disablist things – Over Christmas, a joke went around the table about a film being “The sort of thing you’d slit your wrists to”, followed with everything else being a catalyst for such (So there were mashed potatoes that were worthy of wrist-slitting, music, weather, et cetera); And of course, all the while I was desperately trying to unroll my shirt-cuffs and get the studs back into them, to cover the dark purple scar tissue from where I had, quite comprehensively, tried to open my wrists at the start of last year.

So yes, people who aren’t mentally ill are more likely to make casual jokes about mental illness when they don’t know their audience, and people who aren’t physically disabled are more likely to make casually disablist assumptions about people with physical disabilities.

Point made. So, what do I do about it?

I’d start simple – think “How would I like to be treated in this situation?” and then expand from there.

If you were in a wheelchair, and needed to get up a hill, would you like someone to just grab the handles and push? Now, imagine that that whelchair was your usual means of transport – You probably wouldn’t have been relying on the presence of a bystander to push you up the hill, you probably knew exactly how to get up the hill. If that involved wanting help from a bystander, you’d probably ask. Just because a disabled person is doing something in a way that looks awkward or difficult to you, it doesn’t mean that they want to hear about your far-superior method for doing it, nor do they want your unsolicited help; They’re likely to be doing it that way because it’s the way that works best for them.

If you had something noticeably non-standard about your body, would you like someone to ask you about it? Now, you know that the person who is asking is probably genuinely curious, but imagine that everyone who saw it was curious and tempted to ask you what it was – You’d get sick of it really, really quickly. (The same applies to wheelchair or other apparatus jokes – Trust me, you are never going to be the first person to ask “Can I sit on your knee?” or “Go on, give us a ride!” or “I wish I had one of those!”)

And finally – Speak to whoever spoke to you; If a disabled person is out with a friend, and they ask you something, reply to them, not their friend.

Hang on, do people really do that?

Yes. For some reason, once you’re in a wheelchair, a non-negligible number of people assume that you’re an insensate lump. They’ll ask your friends where you want to be put, what you want to eat, if you’re too hot or too cold… They’ll get very surprised if you’re the one that hands over the cash card at the end of a meal, or if you’re the one that’s trying on clothes, or if you’ve got strong opinions about things. If they do speak to you, they’ll talk to you in a babying voice – Not just slowing down their speech, which is often fair enough if talking to someone hard-of-hearing or having difficulty understanding, but actually speaking in baby talk; High-pitched, lots of head-nodding, words like blankie and dinns and tummy.

Hang on, this seems close to something else;

Ah yes, one of the more insidious bits of ableism, and one that I still do, when I’m not thinking about it; Ableism based on intelligence. I’ve caught myself a dozen times saying something along the lines of “I could argue the toss on this diagnosis in three languages and my bedside manner with cadavers is better than yours with a living patient-” before realising, well, I’d deserve the same courtesy regardless of intellect. See, disabled people can be disablist, too

Ha! Gotcha!

No, not really. I know I’m disablist. I’m working on it, basically every day. What’re you doing?


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